From Tee to Green: The Story of Fortinet’s Successful First Year in Sports
Jim Overbeck has nearly two decades of experience in the IT industry. His last 18 have been solely focused on Information Security, where he has served as a consultative leader providing solutions to organizations of all sizes.
After creating the network security group at CDW, Jim spent several years with security consulting firms and ultimately landed at enterprise security leader Fortinet in January 2004. In 2008, Jim was named vice president of sales for the central U.S. and also oversaw the retail vertical nationwide for Fortinet.
His leadership has helped Fortinet grow from a $10-million start-up to an industry leader with more than $1 billion in annual revenue. Jim took on his current in 2020
In his podcast conversation with host Jim Andrews, Jim shares how a B2B marketer quickly made its mark in sports partnerships through strategic decision-making, smart execution and comprehensive data management. Below are edited highlights of the conversation
Jim A: It’s fair to say that in terms of sports marketing and partnerships, Fortinet has gone from zero to sixty very quickly in the last year or so, from having a minimal presence to taking title of the Fortinet Championship PGA Tour event, launching an 18-stop experiential tour, signing tour pro Max Homa and adding event partnerships in other parts of the world. Can you share how and why the decision was made to jump into sports marketing with both feet?
Jim O: I’m in my 19th year at Fortinet and in the first 17 years, we didn’t do much in the way of sports marketing. The biggest thing we did was overseas. We had our name on the front wing of a BMW Formula E car. We said we were in sports marketing, but really we were just one sticker on a car moving 200 miles per hour!
We do the hard things right at Fortinet. We ship more firewalls than anyone in the world. We’re number one in zero-day discoveries. But the easy part of making sure everyone knows has never really been our forte. There are a lot of different ways you can do that and research showed that golf delivered our target audience, specifically in the U.S.
I received a phone call in January 2021 from someone asking about doing something with Andretti Motorsports and I asked if he knew of any opportunities in golf. He informed me that title sponsorship of the Safeway Open PGA Tour stop in Napa might be available.
So that’s where it started. By the way, I didn’t have a budget for any big projects, but we were looking to grow in the U.S. by at least 30 percent year over year, so we knew that was going to take a sizable investment.
At the next weekly meeting of our top 12 executive staff, I threw the idea out there and was asked to explore it.
Jim A: So there was a little bit of good fortune in this case, in that a title sponsorship of PGA Tour event close to your corporate headquarters in Sunnyvale, Calif.
Jim O: It’s better to be lucky than good! Not only was it 80 miles from our headquarters, but Napa is a global destination for all that it offers. There are Tour stops in less-than-desirable areas of the country where you would need a tow truck to get people to go, but Napa is not an arm-twister!
But we were also signing up for an in-person sports event in the middle of Covid. Napa was additionally fortuitous for us because of its moderate temperatures. We were able to host everything we did in an open-air format, including a security summit for our top 400-plus customers and 200 people from our top 35 partners featuring full-day symposiums and a vendor expo all outdoors in tents.
It took 52 days from start to finish to sign the contract for the sponsorship, which left us five-and-a-half months before the tournament in September. Without in-house sports marketing expertise, we were fortunate to get hooked up right out of the gate with Wolfe Solutions, which is now our trusted advisor on sports marketing globally.
Jim A: I’d like to go back before those 52 days when you were asked to explore the sponsorship and have you talk about the process of how you built the business case.
Jim O: I started by doing a lot of research and calling people with experience in this area. I talked to many of our great partners, including CDW and WWT, who invest a lot in golf. I talked to other companies that had their own Tour stops about what worked and what didn’t. I asked a lot of questions during my discovery phase for the first couple of weeks. I have about 42 pages of notes from those conversations!
At Fortinet, we place value on branding, but we are not going to spend just for the sake of branding. I knew that we needed something to make the investment in golf an offset. That’s where the security summit came in.
The concept I sold to our executives and ultimately to our board of directors, was if we could get $300 million of pipeline to show up—not net-new pipeline or anything to do with the exposure from branding, TV commercials, social or anything related to the soft math of clicks and impressions—and if we could increase our normal pipeline close rate of 33 percent to 39 percent for this group (a little less than a 20 percent increase), we would generate an extra $18 million in revenue we were not going to generate previously. If we average about our 60 percent profit margin on that revenue, that’s $10.8 million—which pays for the tournament.
So I went in with a business plan that showed what it cost and how we were going to pay for it. The deal essentially was that the summit would pay for the tournament. If I had requested $10 million for a golf tournament sponsorship and stopped there, I would have been laughed out of the room.
For our first year, despite the Delta spike that made it challenging, we had 330 people show up—we were shooting for 440. We weren’t going to lower the quality of who we were looking for just to fill seats. This was a VIP experience from the pro-am to honorary observer spots following the players inside the ropes to dinner at The French Laundry—Thomas Keller’s Michelin three-star restaurant—to the finest wines and wineries. Our persona on this was C-level and senior VP level.
Those 330 people represented nearly $600 million in pipeline; almost double my projection. So instead of having to close an extra six percentage points, we only had to close an extra three points to get to the $18 million/$10.8 million. So year one was a raging success for the Fortinet Championship. That was an aha moment that this is where we need to be as a company.
Jim A: This may be a naïve question, but could you have just held the summit without the golf tournament and saved the millions of dollars spent on the sponsorship, or does the tournament drive the attendance?
Jim O: The summit is the steak and the golf tournament is the sizzle. You need to have both to be successful. It was a hard invitation to turn down.
Jim A: When you build a case with those specific numbers and letting everyone know the sponsorship is intended to pay for itself, I imagine you’re going to be pretty rigorous on measuring that return.
Jim O: I brought a mentality from sales, where everything is very finite: a dollar of revenue is a dollar of revenue, a dollar of pipeline is a dollar of pipeline. In marketing, you have impressions, clicks and view rates, but I have my team focused 100 percent on pipeline. Pipeline is what we can generate in marketing and pipeline will result in sales. We are at the front of the train trying to get as much pipeline on as possible, while at the back end they are trying to turn that into revenue.
Everything we do is driven by ROI pillars. I’m not going to put my name down for that level of investment unless I know it’s a sure bet.
We’ve added a Drive to the Fortinet Championship experience that will visit 18 Tour stops this year. We have a VIP event in Napa for 440 people, but we have 600,000 customers globally. So we asked ourselves how we could take a mini version of the Fortinet Championship to different regions. We have an 18-wheeler we call the Fortinet Express, which is a multimillion-dollar showcase on wheels. It visits the 18 tournaments, where we have suites for Friday through Sunday. Guests come to the Fortinet Express in the morning and spend about a half an hour learning about our new technologies. Then we shuttle them to the course and they spend the rest of the day enjoying the golf and networking in our suite.
We can bring that to 4,000 people a year. To ensure we were choosing the right events to go to, we pulled data out of Salesforce that looked at total amount of pipeline, closed/won business, total number of accounts, etc. in a 60-mile radius of each of the 35 domestic tour stops. We selected the 18 we believed could generate the largest return. We weren’t going to spend $100,000 on a suite in a place where the opportunity is one-third what it is in another market. So you might have a phenomenal tournament like the one in Hilton Head, but it’s not 60 miles near anything for us, so it wouldn’t work for our purposes.
We applied the same logic to selecting our first player ambassador for this year, Max Homa, who happened to win our tournament last year. Do we love that our name is on his sleeve? Absolutely, but that’s not what we’re paying for. The assets in our contract with Max include on-site visits, virtual visits, stopping by our suite at the Drive to the Fortinet Championship tournaments. Max walking into the suite is worth $5,000 in pipeline, so if there are 30 guests there, that’s $150,000 in pipeline. That total throughout the year compared to the investment make it a winner.
Jim A: What about rolling this out company-wide since it was something new for everyone? Anything enlightening about that process of educating folks?
Jim O: I’ve talked a lot about pre-event set-up and during the event, but I haven’t talked much about post-event and the analytics that we are able to extract. Do we see a hockey-stick reaction from pipeline generation? I look back at the reports from the Drive events that we’re generating with our Salesforce data and the TicketManager integration and I can see whether there’s an increase in revenue, an increase in buying patterns, an increase in contacts added, etc. That will allow me to see which stops were most and least successful and we’ll probably lop off the bottom four underperformers for next year and pick four new stops. Obviously, we will do a bit more inspection of why they didn’t perform the way we wanted them to, but that data we get from TicketManager is crucial.
It’s interesting the way we have used TicketManager completely differently for the Fortinet Championship than for the Drive events. For the Fortinet Championship, our people had to nominate a customer to attend. We had 3,000 nominations from our sales reps through the TicketManager integration in Salesforce. I was then able to go through each nominee and score them on a 10-point scale based on company size, pipeline size, how much they had spent with us, the person’s title, etc.
With the Drive, we didn’t want or need to put all that work in up front and we wanted this to be the region’s event. So the regional sales directors and VPs are in charge of the quality control. They send out invitations and when a customer registers, they enter the information into TicketManager on the back end so that we can capture that data and track post-event.
Jim A: Having not done something similar in the past, were there any surprises you encountered in your first year? Any advice you would give other marketers who are starting to build out programs like this in terms of managing and executing them?
Jim O: You have to be humble enough to recognize you are not the expert at everything and that there are people out there who are. Working with them will cost money, but I regard that as the best spend overall. The biggest spend is obviously the sponsorship itself, but the money you spend to make sure you have the right trusted advisors and the right information coming to you is the smart money. It’s going to give you an accelerator effect on the big money.